Couples Clinic Marin


Timothy  West, Ph.D., MFT

(415) 892-7330


Article

After Infidelity


Offices located in Corte Madera,

Marin County, California

 

Timothy  West, Ph.D., MFT


(415) 892-7330

Dr.West@CouplesClinicMarin.com

Dr. Timothy West, a Marriage & Family Therapist, provides couples counseling through-out Marin County, California. With offices located in Corte Madera, he also serves the communities of Sausalito, Mill Valley, Tiburon, Greenbrae, Larkspur, Kentfield, Ross, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael, Terra Linda, and Novato.

Couples Clinic Marin


100 Tamal Plaza, Suite 195

Corte Madera, CA 94925

After Infidelity:


What to remember when helping a couple

that has chosen to repair their relationship.



By Timothy West, Ph.D, MFT

     Helping a couple heal from an affair or infidelity is a clinical challenge which asks the therapist to pay attention to several domains of treatment and skill sets during therapy. The profound nature of the betrayal inherent in infidelity can trigger powerful attachment-based rage, fear, and grief in clients. These are feelings that a savvy clinician must explore and, at the same time, regulate, if the relationship is to survive. The following is a necessarily brief and basic list of principles which I have found useful in guiding couples who decide to preserve their relationship and to weather the emotional ups and downs which invariably follow the revelation of an infidelity.



  1. 1)It is important to embrace and yet manage the intensity of emotions in sessions. An affair can be a serious attachment wounding which often triggers primal and sometimes unexpected feelings which can go all the way back to childhood trauma. The betrayed partner may appear to be the most wounded, but I have seen just as much abreaction at times in the other partner. These historically unexpressed emotions must emerge fully and be examined, but without producing the toxic shame which can cause partners to retreat from the process. A grounding in the nuances of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is helpful here.

  2. 2)Infidelity can produce features of PTSD, especially in the betrayed partner. Insomnia, compulsive thinking, emotional unpredictability, nightmares, and depression are common symptoms. Some clients may tell you that they feel like they’re “going out of their mind”. It is important to normalize these reactions. Referrals for individual therapeutic or medicational support is often indicated. Above all, convey to the couple that many marriages have gone through this experience, and even though the healing process can be painful and challenging, relationships can survive and flourish post affair.

  3. 3)Build commitment to the therapeutic process. Recovery from infidelity can take a relatively long time and requires the couple to look at themselves and their relationship in a profound way. If the affair came about as a strategy to end the relationship or as a statement on the way to leaving, repair therapy will be unproductive.  Each partner needs to want the relationship to get better in a powerful way or the difficult emotional healing work will not be successful. Early on, it is important to get a feel for the devotion of each partner to this process, and if a serious imbalance exists, address it directly.

  4. 4)For healing to take place, the affair must be terminated. There can be little or no contact. I am strict about this, because in my experience, trust cannot be rebuilt while the affair partner is in the picture in any way.  If there is a question about this, I have the affair partner fashion an e-mail, letter, or voicemail which basically states that he/she is committed to working on their primary relationship and will not contact, and does not want contact with, the affair partner. This message is reviewed and sent by both primary partners. It is important to realize here that the betraying partner may also be going through their own emotional turmoil, specifically the grieving of the loss of the affair partner. Some individual sessions or a referral may be needed to help them through this. Affair relationships, although often compelling and intoxicating, usually end in a relatively short period of time as the infatuation wears off. If the affair occurred in the work place or an ongoing social context, there may be professional repercussions and other complications which the betraying spouse is struggling to address.

  5. 5)Suspicion is normal. The betrayed partner can become hypervigilant and nosy, intercepting e-mail, cell-phone, and texting records as well as wanting a full report on the betraying partner’s daily activities during and after the affair.  Healing from the traumatic nature of the infidelity requires this nosiness, to some degree, in order for the betrayed partner to recover their sense of safety and trust in the relationship. The betraying partner usually needs to be educated as to the importance of full and honest disclosure (which may be a “first” for the relationship) and the importance of this transparency for the relationship’s healing. This also applies to the disclosure of the details of the affair itself. Patience and balance are important here, for sometimes the betraying partner can feel unduly hounded by the questioning and even slip into toxic shame which will cause a retreat from the process. I have learned to pace these inquiries over several sessions so that both partners feel relatively comfortable with this phase of the therapy.

  6. 6)Don’t demand forgiveness, but do build mutual empathy. It is essential that the betraying partner eventually be able to express remorse about the affair and an understanding of the painful feelings that the infidelity has triggered in his/her partner. This communication of empathy will usually need to be made a number of times for the offended spouse to accept it fully, because trust in anything the betraying spouse is saying is only being rebuilt gradually. If the betraying partner can come to understand that the healing of the relationship is largely dependent on the other partner’s perception of the sincerity and depth of his/her empathy or apology, the therapist can help with the deepening of its expression as a more or less long-term project in the therapy. It is also important for the betrayed partner to begin to express an understanding of the unfaithful partner’s alienation from their relationship and some acknowledgement of the conditions that created a context for the affair to take place. This, in no way, excuses the offending partner’s behavior, but rather encourages him or her in the belief that whatever was broken for them in the relationship can be repaired. You are not asking the betrayed partner “to forget” or especially, at this point, to forgive. Remembering mistakes is how we build a better present and future. Rather you are asking them if there isn’t even a small percentage of themselves that can understand their role in a relationship that was not working.

  7. 7)While processing the emotional turmoil created by the infidelity, it is important to simultaneously be building the relationship skills that the couple has been lacking. It is my belief that affairs happen because partners generally become lazy or indifferent toward nurturing their relationship, a project which they need to regard as one of the most important of their lives. I ask the partners to engage in positivity and friendship exercises and homework (Gottman’s “love maps” and “appreciation” process, for starters). I also begin helping them integrate what I call “rituals of connection” into their everyday marital routines. They come to realize that if they can practice keeping their marriage healthy and communicative, they will not have to fear slipping into the unconscious fog and isolation that create a context for destructive behaviors such as affairs.

  8. 8)Healing from an infidelity takes time. There are typically many ups and downs during the treatment. Clients will report “good days and bad days” and they will often think that one emotional setback has pushed the relationship back to square one. The therapist needs to model confidence and perseverance, understanding that it can take at least one to two years for a relationship to begin to get back on track after an affair. Naturally, clients want to be pain-free as quickly as possible, but with the difficult issues that usually need to be explored in these cases it is best to be patient and not rush the process nor send the couple on its way prematurely.

  9. 9)Counsel the couple to be careful about whom they share their problems with. The subject of infidelity can bring about many strong reactions in friends and family, many of whom may rush to give advice. Most of those on the outside of an affair have very little understanding of the core issues unique to the couple involved and tend to wreak havoc if they participate in mediating, giving opinions, “solving the problem”, etc. I caution couples to avoid these outside projections by limiting their sharing to only the most mature and neutral of confidants who can support the health of the relationship and each partner individually.

  10. 10)Seek consultation if needed. Infidelity triggers a complexity of strong reactions in everyone involved, including the therapist. It is not uncommon for the clinician to feel anger, impatience, or a sense of helplessness in reaction to various revelations or impasses in the treatment. More than other cases, I have found the counter transference to be potentially more intense when infidelity is the central issue. If I feel I am losing my balance with a couple I will seek collegial feedback or formal consultation. Remember, the revelation of an affair is a traumatic event and the therapist is often a witness to a good portion of this revelation. We need to deal with our own attitudes toward and feelings about “cheating” without muddying the waters with our clients and skewing the therapy.


   Contrary to the tide of popular opinion, infidelity does not necessarily signal the end of a marriage. With skillful therapeutic intervention, a couple can recover from this serious breach in trust and truthfulness, rediscover the meaning in and reasons for their relationship, and rebuild the emotional bonds which connected them in the first place and continued to sustain them during a tumultuous event in their relationship. Without a doubt, the couple must wake up from a slumber of poor relational habits which have contributed to the predisposing distance, isolation, and eventual betrayal. The clinician endeavors to gradually help them repair and heal while encouraging a new ethic of mindful honesty and “first priority” to maintaining the health of their emotional connection and friendship.


Readings that have helped me in understanding the complexity of treating “affair couples”:


    Surviving Infidelity, Subotnik & Harris, Adams Media, (1999)


    Not Just Friends, S. Glass, The Free Press, (2003)


    After the Affair, J.A. Spring, Harper Collins


    Trauma and Recovery, J.L. Herman (1996)


    The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, J.M. Gottman, Three Rivers Press, (1999)



   Timothy West Ph.D. MFT is the founder of the Couples Clinic of Marin and has been in private practice for 22 years.  A certified Gottman therapist, Dr. West has received advanced training in EFT with Dr. Sue Johnson and has co-led Gottman weekend workshops in Marin. A past president of Marin CAMFT, Dr. West has presented many times in the area and written several articles for professional publications. For more information about his work, please visit his website at www.couplesclinicmarin.com.




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